A version of this op-ed was published in the Raleigh News & Observer on November 24, 2023. That version is available on the News & Observer’s website.
As a young professor at N.C. State, Jim Goodnight in the mid-1970s teamed with colleagues to build software to analyze agricultural data. That N.C. State team turned a good idea into a great one, spinning that innovation into a product line that birthed SAS, the Cary-based software giant that recorded $3 billion in sales last year and employs more than 12,000 people.
That’s the sort of success story we need more of here in North Carolina, which is why the CHIPS and Science Act is so important. The Tar Heel State and rest of America are on the precipice of a transformational era for our nation’s research and innovation enterprise, spurred largely by the work of our research universities. The CHIPS and Science Act signed into law last year included a $52 billion boost to the semiconductor industry – a sector where North Carolina companies are well positioned to create new jobs and boost the economy. It would also provide $200 billion to further strengthen the nation’s competitive advantage in other fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, energy sciences and bioengineering. This money has been approved but not yet distributed, and time is wasting.
North Carolina is well positioned to capitalize on this investment, but Congress must prioritize this funding in the current and future budget cycles to ensure the nation stays ahead in the increasingly competitive race for global leadership in science and innovation.
The universities in North Carolina are extraordinarily successful in winning research funding; Duke ranks 9th nationally in federal research funding and brings in about $776 million of the more than $2 billion of federal funds that support university research in our state each year. These dollars fuel discoveries that become solutions we all need. The funding attracts and retains talent to our state, provides jobs and prosperity for North Carolinians, and generates long-term and sustainable benefits when companies that are born here decide to stay here. In the last 5 years, Duke researchers have launched 75 companies around Duke intellectual property; 55 of them, including Sparta Biosciences, which has developed a new chemically engineering cartilage to help people with cartilage degeneration, have stayed right here in North Carolina.
Building this economic engine doesn’t occur overnight or even over a few years. It requires long-term and sustained investment and a highly trained workforce.
We face increasingly tough competition for talent as other countries, both allies and adversaries, are substantially increasing investments in science and technology and other STEM fields. Full funding of the science portion of the CHIPS and Science Act will expand opportunities for North Carolina and the country to cultivate and retain homegrown talent and continue to attract the very best from across the globe.
One example of this is the National Science Foundation (NSF) Regional Engines program, which seeks to build innovation capacity across the country. Duke is a partner on a proposal led by UNC Wilmington to unite universities, community colleges, non-profits and businesses to build and sustain coastal and climate resiliency in Eastern North Carolina. This program has great promise to transform regions in North Carolina, and across the country. But NSF currently only has enough funding to support its current round of applicants.
Similarly, our Duke Quantum Center, in downtown Durham, is a major player in large-scale information processing, building ever-larger quantum computer systems. North Carolina could be well positioned to be a leader in quantum computing if the promise of CHIPS and Science is realized.
We’re ready for the next step.
Academic research and development is a federal partnership that has galvanized the state’s economy for more than 60 years and one that must remain robust if we want to continue that momentum. The CHIPS and Science Act will further catalyze North Carolina’s leadership in discovery-based research, but current projections show a $7 billion funding shortfall from the original spending targets. If not fully funded, we will see further stagnation of the nation’s economic growth, defense capabilities and global competitiveness.
If we want the great innovations to grow from our soil and benefit our citizens, we need Congress to start distributing the money it approved for use a year ago. Let’s create the next generation of innovators.
Vincent Price is president of Duke University.